“Women superintendents are calling for change in the gender inequities that thrive in Oregon’s education system.” That’s according to a new report from the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon Commission for Women and the Oregon Department of Education.
The report asked every female superintendent in the state to talk about what they’ve experienced. Most of them agreed to participate. Taken together, their stories paints a picture of gender bias at basically every level of Oregon’s education system: in the hiring process, in the workplace, and in terms of compensation.
Krista Parent served for 18 years as the superintendent of the South Lane School District. She’s now the director of executive leadership for the COSA and vice chair of OCFW. She says unfortunately, not much has changed for female superintendents in the past 20 years.
“They come later to the superintendency in terms of the length of their career and they oftentimes have more education, including doctorates, than their male counterparts do and yet they still are having to constantly prove that the deserve to be in the room and to be in the position,” she said.
Parent says mandatory trainings for school board members would go a long way towards closing the equity gap among superintendents.
To listen to the full conversation, click play:
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Female superintendents are calling for change in the gender inequities that thrive in Oregon’s education system. That’s according to a new report from the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon Commission for Women and the Oregon Department of Education. The report asked every female superintendent in the state to talk about what they’ve experienced. Most of them agreed to participate. Taken together their stories, paint a picture of gender bias at basically every level- in the hiring process, in the workplace. In terms of compensation, Krista Parent has a unique perspective on all this. She served for 18 years as a superintendent of the South Lane School District. She’s now the Vice Chair of the Oregon Commission for Women and the Director of Executive Leadership for the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. She joins us now to talk about the findings and the recommendations in this new report. Krista Parent, welcome.
Krista Parent: Good afternoon Dave. Thanks for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. What big questions did you really want to answer with this report?
Parent: We were looking at two things in particular. We wanted to look at the barriers to women aspiring to be superintendents and seeing if we could make a difference in terms of eliminating some of those barriers. Once in the positions, what are the experiences of women superintendents and what are the kinds of support that they need to be successful?
Miller: You have a lot of experience in this exact field, as I noted, both as a longtime superintendent yourself and now as a woman who is trying to make school leadership in Oregon better and more reflective of our communities. I’m curious what your overall response was when you saw an early version of this study.
Parent: Initially, I was saddened by the response. I did my dissertation in 2004 on women in the Oregon superintendency. I was an early career superintendent at that time and had been doing the work for about four years. My study showed virtually the same thing, things that we found almost 20 years later. Not a lot has changed. I think that is really unfortunate for our kids in the Oregon school system. The pathway to the superintendency is shallow right now in terms of applicants and we’re losing superintendents at a very high rate over the past five years. When we eliminate talented groups of people, whether it be women or superintendents of color, we’re really doing our kids a disservice.
Miller: What did you find most appalling, if not surprising, in the comments from the superintendents who were quoted in the report?
Parent: I think the fact that we had school board members telling superintendents things like, ‘gosh, you’re really pretty. But you need to smile more.’ We had a school board member tell the superintendent that they thought she needed to wear more makeup. We had a school board member tell a female superintendent that, ‘oh honey, we just can’t pay a girl that much’ when they were sitting down to negotiate a contract. The fact that it’s 2021 and we still have folks, especially school board members, who are responsible for hiring superintendents that have those kinds of perspectives on women and whether or not they’re capable of doing the work is really disheartening.
Miller: The title of the study is “Just Not Ready For A Female.” Where did that title come from?
Parent: I think the overall findings of the report showed that 72% of teachers in this country are women and less than 25% are actually superintendents. The teacher pool should be what eventually feeds into the superintendent pool. To see that disparity in numbers there is obviously very telling and is indicative of the title that was chosen for this report. The comments from women superintendents and from school board members that really question whether or not female superintendents can do things like manage a budget, be a part of bonds and construction conversations, do the HR work... Typically those are seen as male skills and experiences and we still have many school board members and others that feel that to be true.
Some of this needs to really look at what superintendents are required to do now. There isn’t a lot of emphasis by school board members on things that are really important in the superintendent role like creating systems, focusing on teaching and learning and all kids being able to be successful in our system. Back to the title, all of the things that surfaced in this study suggest that there are many individuals such as school board members that are responsible for hiring superintendents that just don’t think females are actually capable of doing many aspects of the work of the superintendent.
Miller: As I noted, you served as a superintendent in Oregon for 18 years. To what extent were the findings and the individual stories and comments from women who are serving now... How consistent were they with your own experience?
Parent: That’s a great question. I actually spent 33 years in the same school district, first as a teacher, then I was an athletic director and principal and an assistant superintendent and then the last 18 years as a superintendent. I was very shocked in my first administrative experience, which was as an athletic director. I attended my first statewide athletic directors meeting and walked into a room and looked around and thought I was in the wrong location. There were two other women in the room. At the high school level, there are over 300 high schools in the state of Oregon. There were a lot of folks in this room, [only] two other women- one happened to be a secretary and one was an athletic director colleague and I was so blown away and shocked. I grew up as an athlete, I was an athlete at the University of Oregon and I guess I just hadn’t really noticed.
That was my first experience in administration where I just went, wow. Fast forward about another 10 years, I walked into my first statewide superintendent meeting and had a very similar experience in my first year. I think there were 12 women superintendents in the state of Oregon. That was very shocking for me as well. I don’t remember getting comments about my physical appearance, although maybe they were being said and I just didn’t hear them. Maybe they were being said behind my back.
But I did frequently have to prove myself. We passed a number of bonds in my former school district and built some new schools and every time I showed up to that first meeting with the general contractor and the architect, I always had to clarify that, ‘hey, over here, I am the superintendent’ because they always went right to the male in the room who was typically our maintenance supervisor.
I did experience some of that. I’ve also been in many rooms with superintendents where the conversations are dominated by the men and for a variety of reasons, the women in the room are more reluctant to speak up and oftentimes when they do, are discounted for the comments that they have to make. We know from the study and from previous studies that women have more experience as teachers, they have more education experience overall. They come later to the superintendency in terms of the length of their career. They oftentimes have more education, including doctorates, than their male counterparts do. Yet they still are having to constantly prove that they deserve to be in the room and to be in the position.
Miller: What did you find in terms of compensation? Is it possible to do an apples to apples comparison to show gender bias in terms of compensation?
Parent: That was a side piece to the study. We didn’t start out intentionally looking at that. Part way through the study with our women’s superintendent network, we decided that would be something that we should take a look at. There are also many things from this study that suggest we need to do a second study and go deeper into some of these things. In a cursory look at superintendent compensation, on average, women superintendents are about $35,000 behind their male counterparts. When you line up things like size of district, the one thing that it didn’t take a look at was the experience level of the superintendents. That’s something that we feel like we need to unpack in a next wave study.
Miller: Let’s turn to school boards because they loom so large in this conversation. The superintendent is the sole employee of the school board. Arguably the most important thing a school board does is hire, manage and sometimes fire superintendents. We’ve seen a lot of that this year. In the big picture, how would you assess the way school boards are doing in terms of the hiring of superintendents?
Parent: I just want to qualify before I answer that question that there are a whole lot of really amazing school board members in this state and in other states. I don’t want to discount their efforts, their volunteers and they are, in many cases, incredible human beings doing the right work and focused on kids. Some of it is in the system. School board members don’t have to have any qualifications to be a school board member other than to reside in the district and be over the age of 18. And that’s pretty much it. They don’t necessarily have any area of expertise and education at all. That is a little bit of a challenge.
There are some things that could help the situation. I would agree that arguably one of their most important responsibilities is to hire a superintendent. I think one of the challenges that we face, and we’re actually trying to make a difference with as we speak, is that the search firms that help districts help school boards find a superintendent are very white, male dominated. Those are the search firms that have been doing this work now for decades. To have superintendent search firms that have an equity lens and have a better pulse on all of the amazing candidates out there, whether they’re male or female or superintendents of color would help. The second thing is that we need to require some level of training for school board members. The Oregon School Boards Association does an absolutely amazing job of providing training to school board members in Oregon, but it is completely voluntary. There’s nothing that compels the school board member to participate in that training unless they choose to do so.
We have co-sponsored a bill in the last session and we’re bringing that back in the short session as well to have a requirement around school board members receiving some level of training. In some cases, I think that would really help a lot because they don’t know what they don’t know.
Miller: Improving hiring practices will only go so far if, as you noted, women who are potentially moving up in the ranks are less likely than their male counterparts, maybe their less experienced male counterparts, to seek these jobs in the first place. What could be done to encourage more qualified women to actually apply for these jobs?
Parent: That’s something that’s been a big piece of my work here at COSA. This is my fourth year at COSA. When I started here four years ago, we started an aspiring superintendent program. Through our existing women superintendents, we’ve really made a big push to help us identify great female leaders out there that ought to be aspiring to be superintendents. We asked our male counterparts the same thing as well. Just getting the word out and asking for referrals has been helpful. Then we run the aspiring superintendent seminar series where we have gotten quite a few women candidates in that series.
The second piece to that is to provide significant support to superintendents once they’re in the position. In this study, it revealed that mentorship was huge for women superintendents, not only women superintendents, but folks that are women that are aspiring to the superintendent role as well. And you know, mentorship is important. It’s not something that’s typically funded. Here at COSA, we’ve been working hard to raise dollars and to write grants and to have other sources of revenue to be able to provide mentors for our early career superintendents, not just women, but all early career superintendents. And we are doing that. Of our 43 districts with new superintendents this year, all of those new superintendents have a 24/7 mentor that they can call on. That was identified in this study as something to be very important.
Miller: Just briefly, the report also calls out the gender gaps that exist across school systems. It says increasing the number of male teachers is as crucial as increasing the number of female administrators and leaders because it interrupts gendered expectations. We have just a minute left. Do you agree with that? Should that be a goal as well?
Parent: I absolutely agree at the elementary level. That’s where you see the disparity. It’s very similar in terms of way more women teachers at the elementary level than you see males. The other great disparity exists for high school principals. The high school principal percentages pretty much mirror what we see in the superintendency. There are very few female high school principals.
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